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Sandy, Part II: The Night

by Bernadette Sheridan, MD, family medicine

You can read Part I here.

The sky turned dark at about 4, on the afternoon that Hurricane Sandy slammed into the East Coast. My neighbors and I had sandbagged our houses and taped over the windows, and most of us had stayed put. We figured that, like so much other trouble that had come to New York over the years, this too shall pass. So that afternoon, I sat at the computer in my home of 30 years on the eastern shoreline of Staten Island. I sipped tea, working remotely for the patients of my Brooklyn-based practice 20 miles away.

About 7 p.m., the wind howled. By 9 p.m., I turned on the TV to see Lower Manhattan flood. Water covered the hood of my neighbor’s car and soon, I could hear the rising water push its way into my home.

I had no concept of what exactly “storm surge” meant, but I did know it’s impossible to outrun a tsunami. 

All of a sudden, it felt like someone had pushed everything to warp speed. Once I heard the water entering my home, the sandbags we’d laid were like Sandy’s appetizer. She swallowed each of them, so a friend and I raced into the garage and lined the doors with plywood. Five minutes later, the water was quickly filling my home office and there was only time to grab the books closest to the staircase.

I ran upstairs to look outside and saw cars drifting down the street in a slow-motion dance. The water moved fast but cars, containers and other very large items floated past slowly. My car was now doing a fascinating 180-degree turn in the driveway. Finally, the lights went out and my cell phone lost all its bars.

If I didn’t know what a storm surge was when I woke up that day, I did now.

And that’s when I watched my front door simply fly away. At first it looked like Aladdin’s magic carpet getting pulled through the air, allowing a huge wave of dark water to pour into my house toward the kitchen and living room.

I quickly slammed an interior door shut and hammered it down with plywood. As I took a breath and placed my hand on the wood, I could feel it slowly palpitating. Did Sandy have a pulse? I sat down in the dark and, as Sandy destroyed my home from under me, I prayed silently that whatever was below the first floor would be enough for her.

Sometimes, sights are what you remember. Other times, it’s sounds. For me, an experienced physician now forced to come out from behind the arrogance of knowledge and position, I had time to focus on the meaning of… pitch black. There was absolutely no light. The wind howled like an angry old woman, a screeching banshee of fairy tales, visiting house to house in my neighborhood. I went upstairs and shone the flashlight through the window to watch as the siding of my neighbor’s home delicately peeled off, flying into the air like kite streamers. Curtains fluttered from gaping windows and I wondered if the house would get sucked into the sky like in “The Wizard of Oz.”

The noise of my home knocking and moving, straining to stay in place but unable to resist, was one of the most eerie noises I had ever heard. The twisting of metal and the banging of heavy objects outside sounded like the Titanic right before her dive into the Atlantic. I started to wonder if all this would haunt me afterwards and if I would need to be medicated for PTSD.

What followed was 12 hours of thought, prayer and deep introspection. Sandy forced me to return to my own personal Ground Zero and redefine my priorities. At one point, when the racket and rattle threatened to overtake, I took some of my own medicine. It’s a short command I repeat to patients daily: Breathe. I simply breathed.

My panic attack was averted. The longest night gave way to morning and, as in the days of Noah, the sun came out …

Dr. Sheridan runs Grace Family Medical Practice in the Canarsie section of Brooklyn. She’s a native New Yorker and an athenahealth client.

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